The Byzantine Prehistory of Lag ba-Omer

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The Byzantine Prehistory of Lag ba-Omer
Aton Holzer

Emperor Julian

Emperor Julian

The origins of the minor Jewish festival of Lag ba-Omer, celebrated this year on May 12, are shrouded in mystery. This article by Aton Holzer, forthcoming in TRADITION Spring 2020, speculates that the origin of the holiday lies in the laying of the cornerstone of the Julianic Temple in 363 CE in Jerusalem. This project was intended by Emperor Julian to vitiate the ideological foundation of Christianity, which had invested a great deal of theological capital in the Temple’s eternal ruin. The date was consciously and carefully chosen – for Julian, to eclipse an existing pagan holiday, and for the Jews to allude to pre-existing traditions regarding the death age of Jesus. When the project was derailed, either on the day itself due to an earthquake, or a month later, when Julian died, it was decided that the date be observed as a fast to mourn the lost opportunity, but since the true intent of the fast had to be concealed under Byzantine rule, the date was represented as Iyyar 18, rather than the 33rd day of the Omer; and the “yahrzeit of Joshua” that it was said to commemorate was in fact an allusion to the original reason for the choice of that date. Sometime after the Islamic conquest, the entire theologically charged architecture of Byzantine Jerusalem was overturned by the Muslims; the Temple Mount was cleared and the Dome of the Rock was built as an anti-Christian polemical structure, as was said to have been predicted in an apocalyptic work attributed to R. Shimon Bar Yohai. At this point, the proximate cause for the “Fast of Joshua” was overturned, and it reverted to be celebrated as originally intended, as Lag ba-Omer.

Of note, the first to discover that the date of the Julianic Temple commencement coincided with Lag Ba’Omer was Rabbi Dr. Nachum L. Rabinovitch zt”l, whose shiva is being observed this week, when the first paper regarding the letter of Cyril of Jerusalem was read by S. P. Brock at a meeting of the British Association for Jewish Studies, in Oxford, July 1975.

This essay will appear in TRADITION Spring 2020. While we had hoped to get the issue to our subscribers before Lag baOmer, COVID-related production and delivery delays got in the way. The issue should be arriving in mailboxes sometime next week—in the meantime we are pleased to make an advance copy available for your enjoyment on this Lag ba-Omer.

Rabbi Dr. Holzer is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and is an assistant editor of the recent RCA Siddur Avodat HaLev.

[Published on May 11, 2020]

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